Invisible Hand – Chapter Twenty-Three: At Work

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In which Niall works with Jerome and a truck named Bart and finds out how to make oil.

Loading the bundles of branches, small logs, and twigs did rapidly get tedious, but by the time he had the truck loaded, he’d gotten pretty good with the grabber. He discovered that if he gripped too hard, he broke the branches and some fell to the ground. If he gripped too loosely, he could drop the whole bundle. A couple of times when he dropped the bundle, Jerome gave him a look but since Niall jumped out of the truck and reassembled the pile for a second try, Jerome didn’t say anything about it.

Back at the TDP plant they backed right up to the cellulose hopper, said, “Dump it, Bart,” and the back of the truck came up smoothly, pouring the wood into the hopper. There was a rather loud grinding noise that was quickly muffled and their load disappeared through the rather large hole in the bottom of the hopper.

Jerome then drove the truck to a row of trucks near the office and pulled it into line with the others. They got out and Jerome put back on his leather jacket.

“Can I offer you a lift back to town? I’m going that way anyway and it’d be easy to drop you off.”

“Thanks. I sure could use the ride. I don’t know when the next bus comes by.”

They walked over behind the office building where there was a parking lot for cars. Jerome went right to a rather impressive-looking sports car whose doors opened at their approach.

Jerome said,” Get in. I think you’re going to like this ride.”

Niall got in and almost felt the car enfold him. The door closed itself and the seat adjusted itself to his body so he couldn’t feel any pressure points. The seat was pleasantly warm and the arm rests also automatically adjusted to the position of his elbows.

Jerome slipped in and said “OK darlin’, we’re going by Niall’s place first.”

Niall felt the tiniest of vibrations and the car seemed to almost levitate in a smooth acceleration out of the parking lot. So far as Niall could see, there was no steering wheel and no pedals. Jerome had a grin on his face as the car came out of the lot onto the highway. Then Niall felt the back of the seat press suddenly on his back and the countryside seemed to shoot back on either side. It seemed only a few seconds before the car slowed and went through the middle of town at a sedate pace. Several boys followed them for a while and when the car turned into Niall’s street they took a shortcut. By the time Niall was out of the car, they had come running up.

“Can we see the car, mister?” was said in all sorts of ways.

Jerome said to Niall, “I’ll be back to get you at about 6:30. We should be able to get several loads of those stumps tonight and turn in about 3:00 am.”

“That suits me fine. I’ll be ready.”

“You do have some work clothes, don’t you?”

“Not for this kind of work, why?” Niall asked.

“You can probably pick up some rough and ready clothes downtown if you get there before closing. There is a standard store just beyond the grocery.”

“Thanks, I’ll check in there right after I get a snack.”

Jerome gently moved the car through the growing pack of children and drifted quietly around the corner onto the highway.

Niall ate quickly and went to town to find the standard store. Once in the door he found whites in all sizes and many styles. He picked two pair of heavy duty work pants, some work shirts, and a warm jacket. Then he went to the shoe section and found a pair of work boots that fit pretty well. The store also had toiletries and a kitchen section in which he recognized the style of plates he had found in his own house. He started toward the door with his armload of clothes and was stopped by a middle aged man whom he assumed was a clerk.

“Where are you going with that stuff, mister?”

“I was going to take it home and put some of it on. The other set I was going to wear tomorrow.”

“Who are you and where do you live?”

“I’m Niall Campbell and I live over on Maple Street in Sam Witherspoon’s house. I’ll be happy for you to examine my references. Have you a computer handy?”

“Right over here.” The clerk motioned.

The TV was on the counter in front of the toiletries section. Before the clerk could say anything Niall said firmly, “Jeeves, tell this man who I am.”

“Very good, sir. This gentleman is Niall Campbell of Aldie, Virginia. He is currently working with Jerome Small at the Aldie TDP plant. He is expected to return to work in 48 minutes. His current account balance is $84,503.28. Will there be anything else, sir.”

Niall thought, sometimes it’s really fun to have a valet.

“That will be all, Jeeves.”

“Very good, sir.”

The clerk had not been expecting such a performance and was psychologically off balance.

“Well, I guess it will be all right this time but next time, check with me before you start to prance out of here with an armload of clothes.”

“I shall be happy to cooperate with you in every particular,” Niall intoned adopting just a hint of Jeeves tone of aloof superiority.

Niall managed to suppress the grin until his back was to the clerk.

Hurrying home, he was able to get the new clothes on before he realized that he had forgotten to get a belt and long socks. Hoping that nothing would happen to his only belt, Niall put on two pairs of socks and the boots.

Jerome was right on time and Niall brought a box with several sandwiches (which had exhausted his supply of bread) and several small boxes of milk and juice (which took a lot of his breakfast supplies).

“Good thinking, Niall. Now we can share and get a little variety.” Jerome showed an insulated container in the back of the car which had room for the drinks Niall had brought.

As they drove sedately through town, Niall asked Jerome how he came to have such a car.

“I saved up and bought it, of course. How else would I get it?”

“No, I mean this has all the appearance of being a very expensive car. How could you afford it?”

“The only thing I spend money on is this car and a few clothes.”

“That’s all?”

“Well, maybe a few dates. But I find the car itself is enough entertainment. Girls really love it. And if I drive up to a cafe in this car I get really good service. It also got me that truck I am driving. The guy I got it from must have thought I was going to make him a millionaire,” Jerome chuckled.

“Doesn’t that put a lot of pressure on you to earn quite a lot of money with that truck?” Niall suggested.

“Well, yes, in a way it does. But I only have to earn a little more than the usual for a truck of this type to keep my reputation. I don’t have to earn as much as that fellow thought I would based on this car. Since I work harder than anyone else at the plant, I figure I should be able to beat the average pretty easily. Besides, this is a quick-paying job. So that guy has already gotten paid some for having given me the truck. It isn’t as if he’d paid anything for the truck himself. What he’s getting now for it is pure gravy.”

“Speaking of getting paid. How does that work? I mean, who pays me?”

“For this particular job it’ll be a joint payment, that is, two Payers will collaborate on the amount. They’ll each be getting information about the job from the other and using that confirmation, each will be able to do a quick run-up of the net benefit. The payer at the building site will be giving slow pay. That is, you won’t get much at any one time but it’ll last for years. The Payers at the TDP plant will be paying much quicker. The contribution of the wood to the oil flow and fertilizer and such will be generating benefits rather quickly, which should last a couple of years. The electricity on the grid is pretty standard since all the electrons are about the same so a kilowatt here and a kilowatt in New York both get the same pay. The oil is a little different since we dispose of most of that locally, at least in the winter. In the summer we send most of the oil to a refinery which is kinda like the grid so that’s pretty standard and takes only a few months to pay out. The winter oil is the fastest pay since keeping houses warm is a benefit that’s realized right away and the heating oil we produce here is burned within a few weeks.”

“Yes, but who is the person that actually does the paying.”

“Oh. Well the construction site payer was that guy that came over with the owner. He noted the transfer and saw the condition of the site and will know what would have happened to the site if the stumps were just left there. He should have already done the entry of the benefit and the rate of depreciation and under what circumstances the benefit would have ended. So if something happens to him, another payer can step right in and make our payments for that site. At the plant we have three Payers, since the plant runs all the time. They record who brings in what loads, the weights and materials brought, the trucks used and so forth. They also keep track of the amounts of the various products and where they’re sent. Some other Payers at the destinations pick it up from there for confirmations of arrival and consumption.”

“You know, it sounds just like the kind of information they used to keep in the old days. They were always checking inventory and shipping invoices and such. I assume the Payers use computers for all this?”

“Sure. Doing it on paper would be a lot more work.”

“So the computer network is aware of the flow of all the goods and all the work that’s going on all the time?”

“Don’t give me that religious stuff. Computers are no more aware than those tree stumps we’re picking up,” Jerome scoffed.

“Then why do you call your computer, here, Bart?”

“Well I have to call it something so it can tell when I am talking to it and when I am talking to you.”

“Yes, but you gave it a human name instead of a number or something like that.”

“But that doesn’t mean that it’s aware, even if the computer does talk like Bart Simpson. It’s just a computer and it isn’t alive.”

“Who said it was alive?” Niall said, surprised.

“You said it was ‘aware’ and that means alive. You sounded just like those religious nuts who say the computer network is a living being. They’re like something out of a scary Sci-Fi movie.”

“All I meant was that the information was in the various databases and could be accessed at any time. Computers aren’t alive, for goodness sake,” Niall tried to put reassurance in his voice.

Jerome’s reaction to his comment had given Niall another bad turn. If the computer system itself was the agency that was controlling people, if it had escaped its human control, that would explain why Niall was unable to identify the people behind the tool. If the system that could so easily be used to control people had come to have a mind of its own and worse still a will of its own, then the problem was more serious than he had thought.

Still, from what he knew of computers, granted that it was many years out of date, there was no way that the computers could be intelligent enough or wise enough to take over for themselves. Of course 15 years was a long, long time in computer evolution. Perhaps by some fluke or accident… No that was just impossible. It had to be impossible.

By this time Jerome had arrived at the stump dump. There was the promised front-end loader. It was a rather substantial piece of equipment and, as such, very valuable. It somewhat surprised Niall that Jerome would be trusted with it.

“What if someone else came along and drove off with that thing.”

“It wouldn’t let ‘em. It is expecting me and only I can drive it.”

“Now who is talking like the machines are alive?” Niall laughed.

“You got me on that one.” Jerome grinned. “OK, we’ll take the easy ones first, the ones that are kind of by themselves. Then we supplement with branches until we have a full load. I’ll put the first stump in the back and the second in the front. While I am getting the second, you fill in around the first stump with branches. Then while you pack the second stump I will strap the first and so forth. Ready?”

“Let’s roll.”

Jerome parked the truck near two rather outlying stumps, but within range of a large pile of brush. Then he took off his leather coat and put on a somewhat battered heavy white jacket that was behind the seat. He was already wearing his boots and white pants. Then he went to the loader and climbed into the cab. The machine quickly and efficiently approached, grabbed, and lifted the first and larger of the two stumps. Then it swung ‘round and approached the truck from the back and, almost gently, placed the stump in the back of the truck. Niall began grabbing clumps of brush and limbs and stuffing them in the back corners and around the sides of the stump so it wouldn’t shift when going over bumps or around corners.

Jerome soon approached from the side with the second stump and Niall hurriedly moved his grabber arm out of the way as the stump was lowered into the front of the truck body. Then Niall resumed tucking branches and brush around the stump, working from back to front. By the time he finished, Jerome was already almost finished attaching straps over the top of the load from the sides of the bed of the truck. There were take-up reels just under the bed into which the ends of the straps were fed and they took up the slack.

Back in the cab, Jerome told Bart to get going and the truck slowly wheeled back to the road. Jerome used the drive back to the plant to describe how the truck and the loader had communicated and adjusted the load so it would be properly balanced and centered.

“In the old days it would have been just drop her in and let her rip,” Jerome commented. “Now we won’t be more than 2-3% off the same weight on every wheel. They expect the trucks to last years longer.”

They backed the truck up to the hopper, and Bart released the straps, rewinding them, inclined the bed, and slid the whole mass of tree parts into the waiting hopper. Niall was expecting a loud noise but instead there was nothing except the crunch of the wood itself.

“Is it broken?” Niall asked.

“No. But it is night and people don’t want that kind of noise at this time of day. We need to put the sound blocker on.”

Jerome approached a TV attached to the side of hopper. “Okay, Snarf, put on the lid. That’s all we have this load.”

A large thick cap lifted up from behind the hopper and settled down over the opening, completely blocking it. Niall put his hand on the hopper and could feel strong vibrations but there was almost no sound.

“How do they make it so quiet?”

“They have anti-sound generators, you know, speakers that make a sound that cancels out the sound of the stumps being chopped. It’s just a large scale of the anti-sound systems on Bart and Darling. It takes some electricity, but that’s a lot cheaper than the reduction in net benefit would be if we blasted the neighborhood with sound all night.”

“Let’s get another load.” After several more loads, Niall and Jerome had become a smoothly functioning team. On their way out to get the last of the night’s loads, Jerome drove Bart over to the other end of the plant and asked for some diesel fuel. They were directed to some 50 gallon drums and Niall loaded two of them into the back of the truck with the grabber.

“They only asked for a full tank for the loader but I like to give a little more than expected. Leaves a good impression, you know,” Jerome explained. Bart, 100 gallons of diesel for Matilda. How much do you need?”

“Fifty-seven gallons.”

“To the pumps, Bart.” The truck obligingly maneuvered next to the fuel pumps and Jerome filled his tanks.

“Bart wasn’t really thirsty but I always like to start the day with the tanks about full. Bart, will you need servicing tonight?”

“No servicing recommended at this time.”

After the last load of the evening Jerome said, “I’ll pick you up at the same time tomorrow. I think we have about three more nights of stumps and that ought to about do it for the cellulose for a few days. Then we can split our shifts so you drive Bart half the day and I take him the other half. Think you can learn it by then?”

“I’ll certainly give it a good try.”

As the days went by, Jerome lectured Niall on what kinds of loads were high profit and what low. He talked about efficient paths between jobs when there were no full loads to be had from any one place. He also mentioned scouting on numerous occasions. It seems that one of the things Niall could do was to find additional sources of organic materials to be run through the process.

In the afternoons before Jerome came by to pick him up, a group of boys would assemble to see the car. One of them was the boy from the grocery store. From him Niall discovered that a lot of the area farmers visited the store. Niall soon took to visiting the store and striking up conversations with the farmers. It was only a few days before he had several leads. In one case, it was a cow killed by lightening. In another, it was some worn-out tractor tires. Cleared brush came from this farmer and a torn down old barn from that farmer.

By the time the stumps were all processed into oil, Niall had established a set of clients for his services. He found that he could often fit the small amounts of trash the farmers had into not quite full loads he was assigned by Jessica, who notified him of bigger sources. In this way Niall managed to almost always have a full load when he arrived back at the plant.

It was as a result of these contacts with the farmers, and their discovery that Niall was living alone, that he found himself invited to Sunday dinner on a farm. Niall decided that it was worth the risk that the farmer had a spinster sister, to get a chance to explore how the transition had affected farm life. He was also getting rather tired of the bland standard food.

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